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Volokh Conspiracy

Tentative Reflections on Online Teaching

It can work well in some circumstances, but so far does not seem like an adequate substitute for conventional classroom instruction for large classes.


Like most academics, I have had to teach and lecture online this semester, as virtually all universities have suspended in-class instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic. I have not been teaching classes regularly, as I am serving as a visiting scholar at the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, this spring. But I have done three guest lectures in classes at George Mason University (my home institution) and at Georgetown University Law Center. Two using Zoom, and one Webex. I have also done a number of Zoom and Webex seminars, conference calls and the like. In previous years, I have at times led online seminars, and given guest lectures online at both university and high school classes.

This post offers a few tentative observations on online teaching, based on my experience this semester and (on some points) earlier. I think online instruction has real value in some settings. But I am far less optimistic about it than enthusiasts like co-blogger Josh Blackman—at least not when it comes to large interactive classes.

1. Online teaching works well for small seminars and discussion groups, especially if everyone is motivated and prepared. If there are 10-12 people or fewer, it's fairly easy to keep track of everyone, make eye contact, and have about 90% as good an interaction as in person. I found this to be true when I taught an online class on the politics of science fiction for Learn Liberty in 2018, and I hear similar things from professors teaching small seminars online now. Just a couple weeks ago, I participated in a small-group online seminar about another academic's book manuscript, and it worked very well, in my judgment.

2. By contrast, things are much tougher with a large class. In the latter scenario, it's hard to gauge how more than a small fraction of the audience is reacting to you, and also hard to manage a discussion. Effective instruction (and effective public speaking generally) often depends on maintaining eye contact with the audience, and being able to gauge how well they are absorbing what you have to say. That is extraordinarily difficult—often impossible—when you can only see a fraction of the class at a time.

3. As a guest lecturer, I was doing a lecture followed by questions approach, which makes things easier. Even so, lack of eye contact with most of the audience made it hard to gauge things. And managing the questions was harder than it would be in a classroom.

4. Students also have more trouble interacting with each other when they can't see more than a small fraction of classmates at once. That, too, is an impediment to effective discussion.

5. As Josh Blackman points out, online instruction using Zoom and other similar platforms requires a good deal of "multitasking" by the professor (and, I would add, some by the students, as well). Multitasking is the enemy of effective pedagogy. When people are learning difficult new material, they are likely to do better if they can focus on one thing at a time, and don't have to simultaneously deal with various tech issues. Similarly, instructors do better when they don't have multitask either, but can instead focus as exclusively as possible on conveying information to students and—when necessary- facilitating class discussion.

6. Some of these problems will be diminished as people get more used to the system. Others can be mitigated by technological innovation. Eventually, we might have Star Trek Holodeck-like technology which makes "virtual" interaction almost the same as meeting in realspace. I also recognize that online teaching may be more effective in future semesters when students and faculty have more time to prepare for it.

And, obviously, the quality of the experience right now is necessarily diminished by the fact that so many faculty and students are anxious and worried about the coronavirus crisis, and some have friends and relatives who have gotten sick themselves or lost jobs and income as a result of the accompanying economic crisis. In that respect, the current semester is not a completely fair test of the potential of online instruction.

7. For now, though, my general impression is that Zoom, Webex, and other similar fora are clearly inferior to in-person classes for large groups, and likely to remain so for some time to come, barring major breakthroughs in technology and/or teaching techniques.

8. It is important to recognize that on-line teaching for large groups can work better if the instructor is in one place and all or most of the students are in a single other location. The former can then easily see all of the latter at once, gauge their reactions, and call on people almost the same way as if they were all in the same location. That can work well, and I have made it work as a guest speaker in a number of classes (both high school and university level) in pre-Coronavirus days.

This approach isn't feasible in the current environment. It can, however, make it easier for classes to have valuable guest-speakers from other parts of the country and the world during "normal" times. Your school may not have the funds to invite big-name Professor X to fly out to visit your class in person; even if the money is available, X may not be willing to take the time. On the other hand, he or she might well be able to spare an hour or two to give a talk and answer questions using Skype, Zoom, or Webex. That can be done at a fraction of the cost in time and money, and it could be a very valuable experience for your students. A few instructors already take advantage of such opportunities. More should be aware of this option and start using it!

Online teaching enthusiasts can denounce me as a technophobe, or an old fogey.  But I am actually a techno-optimist, on the whole—the son of two tech industry professionals. We are, I believe, privileged to live in a time where there have been so many impressive breakthroughs in communication technology. I just don't think this particular technology is yet ready to do all we need it to do to adequately replace conventional teaching for large classes.

As already noted, some of my concerns might, over time, be obviated by improvements in technology and teaching techniques. And the extent to which they matter is likely to vary by the subject of the class, and perhaps even by the personality and skills of the professor and students in question. But, on balance, I believe we still have a long way to go before online instruction becomes a good substitute for conventional classrooms, at least when it comes to big classes trying to learn complicated subjects.

If, as seems possible, we are still doing online courses next semester, we will have a good opportunity to see if my assessment is too pessimistic. This is one subject on which I would be happy to be proven wrong.